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Once Upon a Time

Professor Emeritus Michael Saltman

 ESRA volunteer, Michael Saltman of Haifa, has devised an exciting new approach to tutoring Arab school children in English. His method is based on storytelling, which not only has the kids learning, but also having fun. "The fact that they keep coming back, even though taking part in the tutoring session is voluntary, seems to be indicative of the fact that they enjoy it," he says. "And their English has improved too."

Michael Saltman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Haifa University, and has developed a relationship with residents of Kababir who belong to the Ahmaddiya sect, a Moslem sect originating in India, which differs in some respects from the rest of Islam. They translate the Koran into different languages, including Swahili, (something normally forbidden by orthodox Islam), believe in conversion and have peaceable aims. There are roughly 2,000 members of the sect living in Kababir, which is part of metropolitan Haifa.

When Michael decided to volunteer as an English tutor for ESRA, he chose to work with primary school children in Kababir: "I thought I might as well work with people I like. These kids are really well-brought up. It's a pleasure working with them." The school has 167 students in nine classes from Grades 1 through 8, with an average of only 18 children per class. The level is high and students are generally fluent in Hebrew as well as Arabic.

Volunteer sessions are based on the voluntary attendance of the pupils themselves after school hours, and take place in the school library. The headmistress preferred that Michael's volunteer work be primarily directed towards encouraging the pupils, who are in Grades 7 and 8, to speak in English rather than working from textbooks on the curriculum, and towards focusing on group activity rather than individual needs. That gave Michael an idea. "My granddaughter and I used to make up stories together. It was great fun. I thought that approach might work well with these children as well." And so it has.

The aim is to build confidence to speak and expand vocabulary. As Michael explains, he started the story invention process by asking the children to work towards defining the characteristics of a hero and heroine. He came up with a list, including such details as "tall", "strong", "funny" for the hero, and "clever", "beautiful" and "knows karate" for the heroine. The children added their own and then graded the characteristics in order of importance to them. (Interestingly, both hero and heroine are keen on karate.) Then they made up the names of the hero (Franklin) and heroine (Tracey) and moved on to the villains: Majd (ugly, with dirty fingernails, yellow teeth, one eye and a scar) and Bahje (greenish face, piercings and tattoos).

The children really let their imaginations go with the plot, which features, inter alia, a spooky castle in California, eating rats, stealing smartphones and putting viruses onto computers, not to mention taking over the world. Favorite foods and drink are pizza and fruit cocktail.

According to Michael, "Apart from a printed page of suggestions for vocabulary, questions for discussion and a weekly summary of previous sessions (the latter maintaining continuity for the evolving story), it is the pupils themselves who create the story. They first discuss the content among themselves in Arabic and then tell me in English what they want to be in the story. I help them when they have difficulty in expressing an idea in English. If they have difficulties in finding the right words in English, translated from their discussion in Arabic, we work it out through Hebrew (their Hebrew is very good to excellent). Whenever they cannot agree on the content we take a vote on the issue, allowing the children a sense of being in control."

As for interim conclusions about the success of the program, Michael says that "it is premature to make evaluations, but it is possible to note trends. The pupils seem to be enjoying the overall format. They are now speaking, certainly more freely than they did in the first session. They are not only using words from the vocabulary of the worksheets, but also words and phrases from their own latent knowledge. The atmosphere in the library is very relaxed. Children and mothers come in to exchange books. They hang around and listen to our combined efforts."

And the story goes on. Will the dread Majd and Bahje succeed in taking over the world, not to mention stealing the pizza and fruit cocktail? Will the intrepid Tracy and Franklin stymie the bad guys? That's for the pupils of Kababir primary school – and their inspired tutor, Michael Saltman – to decide in future English lessons.

To be a volunteer tutor, contact Michael Levinson, coordinator of ESRA's tutoring programs – tel: 052 705 3681; email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Professor Emeritus Michael Saltman was born in London in 1937 and immigrated to Israel in 1958. He became Professor of Anthropology at the University of Haifa, doing his fieldwork in East Africa, the West Indies and Israel. His main research interest is the Cultural Logic of Disputes and their Resolution. He and his wife Irit have two children, Amnon and Yael and three grandchildren. 



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Wednesday, 21 February 2024

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